Will Cuba’s ‘Yankee Comandante’ Come Home?

An American guerilla fighter fought alongside Castro during the revolution, but then he grew disillusioned and was executed. Now, his widow fights to bring his body home.

AP Photo

Every day for more than a decade, Olga Goodwin has whispered the same prayer: “Please God, bring my husband home.”

Her husband was William Morgan, a charismatic American guerrilla who fought with Cuban leader Fidel Castro during the Cuban Revolution. Known as the “Yankee Comandante,” Morgan fell out of favor with Castro and Ernesto “Che” Guevara after the revolution and was executed. His body was placed in an unmarked grave in Havana.

For more than a decade, Goodwin has tried to get Morgan’s remains returned from Cuba to his native Ohio for reburial. But now, the tussle over one of the last relics of the Cold War could be ending, as relations between the U.S. and Cuba thaw.

“We’re more optimistic because of the recent developments with Cuba,” said Toledo attorney Opie Rollison.

Rollison points to the release of Alan Gross, an American aid worker accused of being a spy, and three Cubans members of the “Cuban Five” who were convicted in 2001 of espionage related charges. Morgan’s body could be next. Rollison declined to offer details about current discussions with the Cuban government. Calls and emails to the Cuban Interests Section in Washington were not answered.

“His mother and wife wanted him buried next to his family in Toledo, Ohio and we’re trying to honor that wish,” said Rollison, who successfully got Morgan’s citizenship restored in April 2007.

For years, Morgan was just a historical footnote. But his profile has been on the rise of late. A new book written by Pulitzer Prize winners Mike Sallah and Mitch Weiss, The Yankee Comandante: The Untold Story of Courage, Passion, and One American’s Fight to Liberate Cuba, is the latest look at Morgan’s life and his role in the formation of modern Cuba.

“This was a guy who was a pivotal player in the Cold War between Cuba, the United States and the Soviet Union,” said Sallah. “In the end, he was a ne’er-do-well who found his cause, his love and his redemption in Cuba. He became something he never was in America. He becomes a hero in Cuba.”

In 2012, David Grann published a story about Morgan in the New Yorker magazine. George Clooney optioned Grann’s story for a possible movie and PBS’ American Experience will cover Morgan’s life later this year.

“Morgan was ‘like Holden Caulfield with a machine gun,’” Grann wrote in the New Yorker. “He was the only American in the rebel army and the sole foreigner, other than (Che) Guevara, an Argentine, to rise to the army’s highest rank, comandante. “

It is easy to see why Morgan’s life has attracted so much attention. It plays out like a movie. He was an ex-paratrooper and high school dropout. He worked as an enforcer for the mob before abandoning his life in 1957 to join Cuban fighters fighting Fulgencio Batista. In photos, Morgan cut a dashing figure with a thick beard and broad shoulders. While fighting in Cuba, Morgan met then Olga Rodriguez and married her. Their love story is at the center of Yankee Comandante.

Morgan teased Goodwin about her haircut when they first met and they used to eat rice and beans at night in the guerrilla camp. They would cling to one another during bombing raids. In one famous picture, Morgan and Goodwin are captured in a bit of bliss as they stand together in the mountains. Morgan has a rifle resting on his right shoulder and his left arm is over Goodwin’s shoulder. They are looking at each other with loving smiles.

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“She inspired him,” Sallah said. “He had never met a woman like her. Olga becomes his driving force through the rest of his life.”

His devotion is evident in a farewell letter Morgan wrote just before he died.

“Since the first time I saw you in the mountains until the last time I saw you in prison, you have been my love, my happiness, my companion in life and in my thoughts during my moment of death,” he wrote.

Under Morgan’s leadership, his band of guerrillas—known as the Second National Front of the Escambry—worked in concert with Castro’s group eventually toppling Batista’s government.

But after the revolution, Morgan became disillusioned with Castro. Morgan’s group supported a Democratic form of government, while Castro began tilting toward the Soviet Union. When Castro canceled elections, seized properties, and imprisoned Morgan’s fellow freedom fighters, Morgan decided to take action. He began stockpiling guns to launch a counterrevolution in the Escambry. But he was betrayed by one of his men and executed by firing squad at the notorious La Cabana prison in March 1961.

Even his death was something out of the movies. Morgan gave his rosary to a priest, asking the man to return it to his mother in Ohio. When his executioners told him to kneel, Morgan reportedly said: “I kneel for no man.”

The firing squad shot out his knees before killing him as he lay on the ground.

“Once he died, much larger events eclipsed his story,” Sallah said. “He kind of got lost in history.”

As Yankee Comandante illustrates, the story of Morgan’s wife, Olga Goodwin, is just as compelling. After fighting alongside Morgan, she spent more than a decade in prison after her husband’s death. Much of her sentence was spent in solitary confinement with a hole in the floor for a latrine, according to Sallah. She suffers migraines after being struck with a rubber club in the head. Food was scarce in prison and she received one small cup of water to wash.

“We prayed a lot,” Goodwin said told the Toledo Blade when asked how she survived.

She was only 79 pounds when she was released from prison in 1972, according to the Blade. Goodwin escaped Cuba during the Mariel boatlift in 1980. Castro emptied his jails and allowed boats to pick up passengers, including the prisoners, and take them to the United States. About 125,000 Cuban refugees left for south Florida.

Landing in Florida, she made her way north to Toledo, Morgan’s hometown. Goodwin promised Morgan’s mother that she’d get his remains back to the town he loved. She has since remarried, but she hasn’t given up on her promise. Getting his body back would finally repay him for sacrificing his life to liberate her country.

“For me, he is a hero,” Goodwin said in a phone interview from Toledo. “For the Cuban people, he is a hero. He gave his life for my country. I promised I would do this.”

The Cuban government erased him from its history after a brief service was held for Morgan in Havana’s Colon Cemetery in 1961. But a series written by Sallah in the Blade in 2002 prompted U.S. Rep. Marcy Kaptur, a Democrat that represents Toledo, to travel to Cuba to plead for the remains. Castro agreed to release the body, but it is unclear how the deal fell through, Sallah said.

Kaptur’s office declined to comment on the congresswoman’s work to secure the remains. Sen. Sherrod Brown, a Democrat from Ohio, has also helped Goodwin. His office has been in contact with the State Department and is pursuing all diplomatic options to recover the remains.

“For too long, the Cuban government has stood between an Ohio woman and her husband’s remains,” said Meghan Dubyak, Brown’s spokeswoman.

The return of Morgan’s remains will fulfill a widow’s promise and also close the book on the life of an American patriot, Sallah said.

“He was somebody that died fighting for freedom,” Sallah said. “He hated communists. When he found out Castro was turning to communism, he gave his life to try and stop it. No one should ever doubt his love of America. This is where Morgan was from. This is where he learned freedom and democracy.”